Remembering Rep. John Lewis

Rep. John Lewis in the 1960s and in 2020. (Photo courtesy of New York magazine.)

By Terrance Turner

July 18, 2020

Rep. John Lewis — author, congressman, civil rights icon — died yesterday after a months-long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80.

“It is with inconsolable grief and enduring sadness that we announce the passing of U.S. Rep. John Lewis,” Lewis spokeswoman Brenda Jones said in a written statement early Saturday. “He was honored and respected as the conscience of the US Congress and an icon of American history, but we knew him as a loving father and brother. He was a stalwart champion in the on-going struggle to demand respect for the dignity and worth of every human being.” 

Part I

Born on Feb. 21, 1940, near Troy, Alabama, John Robert Lewis was the son of sharecroppers. He was the third of 10 children born to Eddie and Willie Mae Lewis. He lived on the family farm, which the Lewis family bought from the white man who owned it. The New York Times states that young John shared in the work picking cotton (!), peanuts, and corn. There was no plumbing, running water, or even toilet paper. (There was, however, an old Sears catalog in the outhouse.)

Young John Lewis cared for the chickens on the farm: feeding them, reading to them, even preaching to them from the Bible. His family called him “Preacher”, which is what Lewis had wanted to be. In fact, it was a preacher who would inspire him to confront the segregation that permeated life in the Jim Crow South.

As a boy, Lewis saw signs of segregation everywhere. “Whites Only” signs were on water fountains, restaurants, bus stations, and even movie theatres. Black children were escorted to the balcony, while white children were seated on the lower level. “I would come home and ask my mother my father , my grandparents, my great-grandparents: ‘Why?’ They would say: ‘Accept what is; don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble,'” Lewis recalled in 2013. “But one day, in 1955, at the age of 15 — in 10th grade — I heard about Rosa Parks. I heard the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio.”

Hearing King preach on the radio — after the landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education, no less — changed everything. To young John, it felt like King “was speaking directly to me,” Lewis told the audience at the 2013 American Library Association annual conference. “I felt like he was saying: ‘John Lewis, you can do it. You can make a difference in the struggle to defend the dignity of all mankind.'”

Inspired by King’s words, a teenage John Lewis took a stand. “In 1956, at the age of 16 — with some of my brothers, sister, and my first cousin — we went down to the public library in the little town of Troy, Alabama,” he remembered. The goal was “to try to get library cards, to try to check out some books. And we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for coloreds.” Lewis didn’t go back to that library in Pike County until July 5, 1998, for a book signing of his memoir Walking with the Wind. Hundreds of black and white citizens showed up, he recalled. “And at the end of the event, they gave me my library card.”

Lewis graduated high school and began theological studies at the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee, per the Times. While there he met several civil rights activists, including the Rev. James M. Lawson. Rev. Lawson mentored Lewis and taught him about nonviolent resistance. He taught him about Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, and their principles.

While at the Seminary in Nashville, Lewis applied to the all-white Troy State University in his hometown. Lewis was testing the mettle of Brown v. Board, which had desegregated public schools nationwide. But he never heard back. Lewis sent a letter to King (by then a minister in nearby Montgomery, Alabama) for help. King sent him a round-trip bus ticket, and in 1958 an 18-year-old Lewis went to meet King. When they met, King dubbed Lewis “the boy from Troy” — a moniker that would stick with John Lewis all his life.

By 1959, Lewis was participating in workshops about nonviolent demonstrating. In October, he and other young students formed the Nashville Student Movement (NSM). On Feb. 1, 1960, four black men sat at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and asked to be served. Twelve days later, on Feb. 13, Lewis and a number of fellow NSM members did the same. They seated themselves at lunch counters at K-Mart and Woolworths, among other places. The protests would last until early May.

Journalist David Halberstam, then a reporter for The Nashville Tennessean, later described the scene: “The protests had been conducted with exceptional dignity, and gradually one image had come to prevail — that of elegant, courteous young Black people, holding to their Gandhian principles, seeking the most elemental of rights, while being assaulted by young white hoodlums who beat them up and on occasion extinguished cigarettes on their bodies.”

In May 1960, after three months and after repeated, well-publicized sit-ins, the city’s political and business communities gave in to the pressure. Nashville became the first major Southern city to begin desegregating public facilities. By that point, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had formed. Activist Ella Baker organized the meeting that led to the formation, and Lewis was one of SNCC’s founding members. But John Lewis’s work was far from over.

Part II

In 1961, Lewis received his B.A. from American Baptist. That same year, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) formed the “Freedom Rides,” aimed at desegregating interstate busing. Thirteen participants (seven whites, six blacks) rode on buses from Washington, D.C. to Jackson, Mississippi, according to the King Institute. The ride was turbulent. Lewis was beaten in South Carolina, but the worst of the abuse came in his home state. In Anniston, Alabama, members of the Ku Klux Klan were given carte blanche by local authorities to do whatever they pleased to the protesters. So they slashed the tires and firebombed the bus.

A Freedom Rider bus went up in flames in May 1961 when a fire bomb was tossed through a window near Anniston, Ala. The Freedom Riders escaped without serious injury. (AP file)
This bus on which the Freedom Riders rode was set ablaze in May 1961 in Anniston, Alabama. (Photo via the Atlanta Journal Constitution.)

In Anniston, Lewis and the Freedom Riders were trapped inside the burning bus by Klansmen, who kept the door closed. They finally emerged, only to beaten by an angry mob. In Birmingham, Lewis and other passengers were attacked at a bus terminal — this time with baseball bats, iron pipes and bicycle chains. In Montgomery, Lewis was hit over the head with a wooden crate. That knocked him unconscious.

Nevertheless, he persisted. “If there was anything I learned on that long, bloody bus trip of 1961,” he wrote in his memoir, “it was this — that we were in for a long, bloody fight here in the American South. And I intended to stay in the middle of it.” It would indeed be a long and bloody battle, as evidenced by the 1961 photograph shown below.

John Lewis and fellow Freedom Rider James Zwerg collect themselves after surviving a bloody attack at a bus station in Montgomery, Ala. in 1961.
John Lewis and fellow Freedom Rider James Zwerg collect themselves after a bloody attack at a bus station in Montgomery, Ala. in 1961. (Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo)

The next year, SNCC organized in Selma, Alabama, to register blacks to vote. In 1962, Lewis was elected to the board of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The organization had the goal first of ending bus segregation, then of eliminating segregation altogether.

In 1963, Lewis — now chair of SNCC — helped organize the March on Washington and was one of its keynote speakers. Lewis gave a stirring speech just before the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech by King. The speech was initially intended to be more militant: “We will march through the South, through the heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did,” he had written.

President John F. Kennedy’s civil rights bill was “too little, too late,” he wrote, per the Times. But Dr. King and other elders worried that those passages would offend the Kennedy administration, whom they felt they could not alienate in their drive for federal civil rights action. They told him to tone down the speech.

Lewis acquiesced. But he still roused the crowd. According to the AJC, Lewis was interrupted by applause 14 times. “By the force of our demands, our determination and our numbers,” he said, “we shall splinter the segregated South into a thousand pieces and put them together in the image of God and democracy. We must say: ‘Wake up, America. Wake up!’” Lewis said. “We cannot be patient; we do not want our freedom gradually. We want to be free now!”

Within months of that iconic day (on which some 200,000 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial), Lewis was back at work. In 1964, “Freedom Summer” began. Lewis and the SCLC began coordinating voter registration drives in Mississippi. The next year would change everything.

On March 7, 1965, John Lewis and Rev. Hosea Williams led a crowd of about 600 across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The goal was to bring attention to Jimmie Lee Jackson, who had been killed weeks earlier by a state trooper after trying to protect his mother during a voter registration march. But they didn’t get far. Police blocked their exit from the bridge and ordered them to disperse. “Major, please give us a moment to pray,” Williams asked. The police agreed — for about 90 seconds.

“Troopers advance!” the major then shouted.

“We had no chance to turn and retreat,” Lewis wrote in his autobiography. “I remember how vivid the sounds were as the troopers rushed toward us — the clunk of the troopers’ heavy boots, the whoops of rebel yells from the white onlookers, the clip-clop of horses’ hooves hitting the hard asphalt of the highway, the voice of a woman shouting, ‘Get ‘em!’”

The police (who had recruited all white men over 21) came forward with baseball bats, shotguns, tear gas, nightsticks, and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. Demonstrators were tear-gassed and clubbed. According to the New York Times, some officers had cattle prods. ABC interrupted a showing of the 1961 film “Judgement at Nuremberg” with a special report depicting the violence. 17 people had to be taken to the hospital as a result of their injuries; some were beaten unconscious. Lewis was among those taken to a Selma hospital. One police officer beat Lewis with a billy club, then hit him again when he tried to get up. Lewis was beaten so badly that he suffered a concussion and a fractured skull.

Photo of what’s now known as “Bloody Sunday”: March 7, 1965. Note the billy club in the hands of the cop; note also that Lewis is holding his head. (Photo from The New York Times.)

The images shocked and horrified viewers. But they also galvanized support for the movement. Within eight days, President Lyndon B. Johnson had proposed voting rights legislation. The Voting Rights Act was signed on Aug. 6, 1965. The law gave Black Americans the right to vote, doing away with poll taxes and literacy clauses and numerous other tactics meant to stop them.

The Voting Rights Act was essentially gutted in 2013 by a controversial Supreme Court ruling. The Shelby decision by the Court struck down the crucial Section 4b, which created a formula to determine which state/local areas had voting restrictions. Section 5 required those states (including Texas) to notify the federal government before making changes to their voting systems. Now, a restoration bill has been introduced, known as the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. It would restore the “coverage formula” and amend it, based on whether 15 or more voting rights violations occurred in the State during the previous 25 calendar years. But it’s been sitting on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s desk for over 200 days.


By 1966, the winds of change were in the air — and blowing against Lewis. Black people across the country were starting to reject nonviolence in favor of direct (and violent, if necessary) confrontation. Within the SNCC, agitators led by Stokely Carmichael felt Lewis was too chummy with President Johnson and Dr. King. In 1966, Lewis was replaced as SNCC chair by Carmichael, who moved to ban all white workers from the conference (according to the AJC).

He kept going. The next year, in 1967, Lewis earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and philosophy from Fisk University. Simultaneously, he worked to register voters at the Voter Education Project. That same year, according to the Times, he met librarian and teacher Lillian Miles. They were married in 1968 and were married for over 40 years. Mrs. Lewis died in 2012. Mr. Lewis is survived by their son, John Miles Lewis.

Lewis’ output slowed in the 1970s. But in 1977, President Jimmy Carter (a fellow Georgian) appointed Lewis to lead ACTION, a federal volunteer agency. In 1981, he launched a successful bid for Atlanta’s City Council. He served there for five years. In 1986, Lewis ran again for Congress, winning in a closely divided contest against friend Julian Bond. He would serve in the House of Representatives for over 30 years.

Congressman Lewis represented Georgia’s 5th District, which includes College Park, Decatur, and much of Atlanta. His Democratic colleagues called him “the conscience of the Congress”, and indeed, Lewis took principled stances on a number of hot-button issues. And he fought for causes he believed in.

In 1988, as a freshman senator, he and Texas Cong. Mickey Leland introduced a bill to create a national African American museum within the Smithsonian. Though there was opposition to the project in Congress, Rep. Lewis introduced the bill at every session of Congress for over a decade. The bill wasn’t signed, however, until 2003 — by then-President George W. Bush. A location was chosen in 2006, near the Washington Monument. Doors finally opened to the building in 2016.

Lewis opposed the Persian Gulf War in 1991 – and, later, the Iraq War. He repeatedly accused President George W. Bush’s administration of lying, and was among the first to call for Bush’s impeachment, per the AJC. But he also worked with Republicans to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.

Lewis endorsed President Barack Obama in 2008. After Obama’s swearing-in, he signed a commemorative photograph for Lewis that credited Lewis for his historic feat: “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.” The two marched together at the 50th anniversary of the Selma marches in 2015.

After 49 people were fatally shot at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, Lewis led House Democrats in a sit-in on the House floor to press the GOP to advance gun control legislation. The group huddled around Lewis and sang protest songs like “We Shall Overcome” for nearly 26 hours. Republican leaders cut the C-SPAN camera feed, dismissing the protest as a political stunt; Democrats broke House rules by streaming the events live from their cellphones.

In her remarks at Lewis’ funeral today, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said that she thought Lewis might be suspended for the protest. But she quickly added: “It was disruptive, good trouble. It was clear to [Capitol police], if they were going to arrest John Lewis for doing that, they were going to have to arrest the entire House Democratic caucus.”

Pelosi grew emotional as she remembered Lewis. She ended her remarks with a poignant tribute: “We always knew he worked on the side of the angels. And now, he is with them.”

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